Monthly Archives: May 2014

What kind of Métis are you? (not a buzzfeed quiz)


Metis Provisional Government, 1870.

Update: This is a terribly naive post. Naive is a polite word. I’m leaving it up because it’s an important part of my learning process, but my attitude has changed a lot since the starry-eyed days of thinking I could step sideways into a community I know so little about. I’ll be writing more about this: my mistakes, arrogance and ignorance. I’m not claiming to be enlightened now, either. Hopefully I’m a little further along the learning arc. 

I’ve been told more than once by well-meaning friends that I should be a natural for the Peel River Watershed trip because hey, I’m Métis! Some are joking, some aren’t. Some really want to believe that the vestiges of Cree and French voyageur circulating in my blood might make me a superstar with a paddle. Maybe I want to believe it, too. Is portaging a genetic trait? I doubt it.

To give the commonly accepted definition among non-Indigenous people, being Métis means that at some point in your family tree, a First Nations person married a European. To many it’s more specific than that, the Métis are a distinct Indigenous people who originate from the plains of Canada. My Métis family comes from St. Boniface, though most of them now live in BC or Alberta. My dad belongs to the BC Metis Nation, and I’ve applied this year. But since I’ve started learning about my family lineage, I’ve been feeling like I’m not Métis enough. The kind who doesn’t really count. That’s because my grandmother, Marjorie Carrière, wanted no part of it.

Marjorie hid her French accent unless she was drunk, which was often. Then she would swan around, sing Edith Piaf songs, call me chérie. But what she always hid from others was her Cree background, even though other members of the family celebrated, or at least accepted it. She never married her lifelong love, Jordy. He was Eastern European, the kind of cleansing ethnicity Marjorie wanted to build her children with. Instead she married someone her Catholic family approved of, a navy man. My grandfather. He was pretty darn white, too. English background. They drank their way through most of their marriage, and separated when my dad -an only child- graduated high school. Jordy had married someone else, and he and Marjorie carried on an affair through several marriages, not even bothering to commit to each other when they were both single later in life. Nobody’s sure why that happened. They loved to drink together though, everyone’s certain of that. And so did other members of the Carrière family, who I saw once or twice when I was a kid. Uncle Felix sticks out in my memory, he had a pompadour and wore actual hawaiian shirts and smoked actual cigars and drank actual martinis. He made them by the pitcher. I’d never seen anything like him, and I’d never see him again because Marjorie’s family didn’t talk to us much. Because they didn’t speak to her at all. Eventually, most of the Carrière family went sober, but not Marjorie. She kept on drinking, and she lived a long time. Most of her later years, she spent alone.

After Marjorie died, the family communication lines opened. At her funeral, my dad spilled her ashes into the Alouette river in Maple Ridge -the river he grew up on- and we sang Amazing Grace for lack of anything better. The reception was at the Maple Ridge Ramada. Three of my dad’s aunties cornered me, then tried to act nonchalant when they asked what I remembered most about my grandmother.

“Her wiener dogs,” I said, “she always had like, three.” I laughed. And then oh, the embarrassment when I realized what a stupid answer that was. “I uh, didn’t know her very well.”

Their faces opened to me. “She was hard to get to know,” one aunty said. Everyone nodded. I won their provisional trust by being painfully honest, and painful honesty would become the family currency. There were years of silence to fill. We talked about my grandmother’s youth and they hinted at familial skeletons: abuse, Catholic shame, neglect. I can’t yet say where exactly the shame came from that caused my grandmother to drink, run from love and try to erase both her French and Cree background. And I may never know, since family secrets, personal bias and the decline of memory winds history into knots.

“She was always so angry,” another aunty said. All three nodded. “She was the angriest of us.”

And really, that’s what I remember most about Marjorie. Not her anger, but the anger that surrounded her. The anger between my parents after she called the house drunk and rambled on to me for an hour before Mom asked me who I was talking to. Mom’s anger when she learned Dad wanted to attempt a provisional reconciliation after many years of silence. My selfish, sulky anger at the lack of grandmothers in my life who baked cookies and took me to the park to feed the ducks. Why the hell didn’t I have one of those?

And now that I’ve been writing for a few years, I find myself wanting to write about Marjorie. I want to build stories around her, a collage of fact and fiction. I don’t want to add happy endings. But I do want to fill in the blanks to create my own cohesive narrative, for better or for worse. I took a workshop with Lee Maracle at the Aboriginal Writer’s Conference last spring. She drew a stickwoman on the chalkboard, and then drew arrows pointing away from her in both directions. She said something like: You belong to all your family, all the way back, and they belong to you. And you belong to your future family. And then, because Lee is such a powerful speaker and because I was ready to listen, I realized how badly I wanted to belong.

And I do belong, for better or for worse. I belong to my difficult Métis grandmother, and she belonged to her difficult history, even as she turned her back on it. I belong to my still-living family, and as I get to know them, I’ll get to know the pride they feel in our story. I’ll be the kind of Métis who just gets it



Chemical Peel


Credit: Calder Cheverie.

There’s no question, I’ll be bringing my own character arc to The Peel. Would a writer have it any other way? In the past few months, I’ve ripped away and temporarily restored all my creature comforts. Been forced to take an uncomfortable look at mortality itself. And now I’m getting ready to paddle through the Yukon and Northwest Territories to the Arctic Circle. Sounds like exactly the right follow-up, really. “The Peel” is right, I’ve been micro-dermabraised, and the skin is coming off in strips. Let’s see what’s underneath. You can bet I’ll be filling journals.

Remembering the first Paul Theroux book I ever read -The Happy Isles of Oceania- where he opens the narrative at his divorce, and then carries his surly attitude from island to island, across some of the most beautiful and exotic locations in the world. (Irony alert!!)

He’s a dick in Australia, making a seemingly effortless leap from a couple of bad experiences with locals to the pronouncement that all Aussies are brawling Neanderthals.
He’s a dick in New Zealand, grumpily parroting the racist assertion that locals (and especially aboriginals) are bland and lazy, despite having skewered the Aussies for that same attitude fifty pages earlier.

Oh, and he hates kids. Every child in Oceania is covered in snot.

Occasionally, he reminds the reader that, yes, his wife has left him. Not surprisingly, I find myself thinking she’s really dodged a bullet. A bullet I wish would find its way into his inflatable kayak as he paddles through the Cook archipelago, camping on forbidden, sacred islands, because: dick. Bitching about how the local restaurants offer fish specials they can’t deliver, because everyone’s too “lazy” to go fishing. Sometimes the restaurants don’t open at all. Sounds annoying, but doesn’t this guy get paid to travel? Surely he’s developed some tolerance.

And he doesn’t just hate the locals. He talks about the Americans bombing Bikini Atoll to shit, dumping rations of Spam and Twinkies from planes to keep the natives from getting restless. He talks about the French and their brutal regime in the South Pacific. Oh, and he hates the Dutch, too. This part of the book was really informative, I admit. It was still bitchy.

He bitches in Fiji. He bitches in French Polynesia (go and have a look at some photos of French Polynesia and tell me you don’t want to punch Paul Theroux in the face.) Then he settles in Hawaii -Maui I think- in some lovely condo he either owns or has unlimited access to, because he is an ultra-privileged writer extraordinaire. And then he kind of chills out a bit and reflects on his marriage. Epiphany time or whatever, 700 pages in. Good for you, buddy, you go reflect. I’m going to mix myself a Mai Tai, sit on my back porch and watch the shopping cart guys roll up and down the alley.

So yeah, the peeled-down protagonist of the legend in our own mind can be a jerk. Easier for Paul Theroux to pull off than for some of us hacks. I’m peeling now, and I’ll be peeling as days pass on the river and my shoulders ache and I’m wet and there’s no Facebook and no way at all to regularly remind people in real-time that, yes, I still exist. I’ll have no choice to spend time with whoever I’m peeling down to.

Hope she’s not a dick.



Ode to Lis


My friend Lis is moving home soon. She’s been in Montreal for a million years getting all corporate: wearing power suits, making sales, skiing in the Laurentians, becoming the kind of person I admire and envy while I become the kind of bohemian flailer she admires and envies. I do suspect the grass is greener on the corporate side. Downright manicured, even. But that’s how perception works. It fools you into thinking you’re less awesome than you are.

Lis was the friend you lived with in your twenties, in a one bedroom apartment, who slept on the floor in the living room. Her student loan hadn’t come in, and she was just going to crash for a few weeks, but you didn’t want her to leave. So she stayed, and every morning, with a cup of coffee in hand, you tripped over her prostrate figure on the way to the futon to light your first cigarette of the day. By the time you got around to packing the first bowl of the day, she would come to, mutter something about just needing five more minutes. She’d take a swig of Coke from the two litre bottle she kept next to the bed, close her eyes, and wait for the caffeine/ sugar to take effect. When it did, she’d join you in your wake and bake. Then, after another smoke and an Italian shower (douse yourselves in perfume) you’d drive out to somewhere nice: the waterfront or Sooke potholes or Metchosin, to be outside. You’d bring beer. She’d have impractical shoes. You’d talk about stuff you were writing, and plays you’d both read. She’d tell stories so beloved, you’d ask for them by name. “Tell me Don’t Drink The Bong Water, Lis!” She’d always seem surprised you wanted to hear it again.

The details may be different, but I hope you’ve all had a friend like this.

Lis and I lost touch after university and then found each other again at Burning Man. Twenty thousand people, and she was camped right across from me. This is the kind of thing that happens there, there’s a Burning Man saying: the playa provides. The playa gave me Lis.

Lis is the friend you re-connect with in your early thirties, who takes you out into the deep empty playa and when a sandstorm blows up, tells you to keep walking. You know how dangerous this is, there are crazy vehicles ripping around everywhere: two storey giant birthday cakes and steampunk attack snails, and you can’t see two feet ahead of you. Lis tells you to keep walking. You’re pissed off, but you keep walking. The sand abrades your exposed skin, but you keep walking. And then some dubstep wafts in from somewhere unseen and you and Lis start dancing, slow-mo dancing into the unknown. You’re wearing a princess crinoline and motorcycle goggles and bunny ears and a Darth Vader chest piece over a silver bikini and you think “Thank god I’m here, doing this, right now.” The knot in your chest, the one you started feeding with your control issues when you turned thirty, unwinds. And you know you wouldn’t be doing this at all without Lis.

Your own details are definitely different, but you know what I mean. That kind of friend.

But a lot of this stuff happened a long time ago, and we’re not the same people, and that’s probably for the best. So now Lis and I get to forge a different kind of friendship. One that’s based on healthier, less destructive adult stuff, I suppose. It’s more in my nature to tell stories about the “good” old days, but Lis likes to look ahead. And she downplays all the lessons she’s taught me, and all the good she’s responsible for. That’s okay, I won’t forget. That’s how good friendship ages.